This is the transcript for SYS Podcast Episode 014: An Interview With Screenwriting Career Coach Lee Jessup.
Ashley: Welcome to the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast, I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at SellingYourScreenPlay.com. In this episode’s main segment I’m going to be interviewing screenwriting coach Lee Jessup. She’s been a screenwriting coach for many years, has a ton of useful information to share with us today, so stay tuned for that.
I want to thank Michael Jennings for sending me a whole bunch of scripts for the SYS script library. He sent me some really good additions like Forrest Gump, Unforgiven, and True Lies and a bunch of others. If you’re not familiar with the SYS script library, have a look at it. It’s completely free they had over 1000 screenplays, all in PDF format, in the library. Michael was asking me about my own screenplays and why they weren’t in the library. So I added some of the screenplays for films that I’ve written and have been produced like Dish Dogs, Man Overboard, and Rushlights. So if you’re curious about reading something I’ve written, have a look at those titles. You can find SYS script library at SellingYourScreenPlay.com/Library. Again, it’s all free and there’s literally hundreds of screenplays in PDF format for you to download and take a look at.
As always, if you find this episode valuable, please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes or, if you’re watching this on YouTube, please give it a like and leave a comment. I want to improve this podcast, so some honest, constructive feedback is very much appreciated. I got a lot of nice comments on this last episode over at YouTube, so I’d like to thank Alex Fielding, Marcelo Grion, Stanford Crane, MWJ5368, Jack McGuire, Constance None. Thank you all for leaving comments, it is very much appreciated. Please always share these podcast episodes with anyone who you think could get some value out of them, thank you.
A couple of quick notes, on April 23 the WGA is hosting a seminar for unrepresented and underrepresented screenwriters. I’m going to be speaking on the panel, hopefully giving my insight about how a screenwriter can market their own work. I think it’s only open to WGA members, so if you are a WGA member, please come out, feel free to introduce yourself before or after the talk so we can chat a bit. It’s always fun to actually talk with folks who are listening to the podcast. Anyway, again, it’s on Wednesday night on April 23 at the WGA Theater. Also, any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast show notes at www.SellingYourScreenPlay.com/Podcasts. Also, if you want my free guide, “How to Sell Screenplay in 5 Weeks,” you can pick that up by going to SellingYourScreenPlay.com/Guide. It’s completely free, you just put in your email address and I’ll send you a new lesson once per week for five weeks along with a bunch of bonus lessons. I teach the whole process of how to sell your screenplay in a guide, how to write a professional log line and query letter, how to find agents, managers, and producers who are looking for material. It really is everything you need to know to sell your screenplay, just go to SellingYourScreenPlay.com/Guide. Plus a lot of the stuff that I talk about on the podcast will make a lot more sense if you’ve read my guide. It will give you some additional context and background on my whole marketing approach, so definitely check it out if you haven’t already.
A quick few words about what I’m working on. I’m still nursing along several of the options that I currently have. I did a blast about a month ago for my dark romantic comedy, I’m starting to get some responses on that. So far no takers but we’ll see how that all turns out. It’s a bit of an out there screenplay so we’ll see. I’m almost done with my next spec, which is a limited location horror thriller that I’m pitching as Hostile meets Deliverance. I think this script is pretty marketable and it will be easy to shoot, so I’m hoping that I can find a producer who’s interested in that one. I’ll be real curious to see how it goes, I’m hoping to get it done and blasted out by the end of April.
I had an interesting talk with my good friend Nathan Ives this past week. He’s been my writing partner on a few scripts and he recently wrote and directed his first feature, he’s out trying to sell it now. He had a meeting with one of the big VOD services and they told him that the best low-budget independent films right now, from what they were seeing, are conservative Christian family films. I actually have two small daughters, my oldest is four, she loves movies and has been watching all the Disney movies recently. So for the first time in my life I’m actually thinking about writing a family film. Might be a nice change of pace, as I said I’m just finishing up a horror thriller, so turning to something more family-friendly might be kind of a fun change. And it sounds like there’s a good market out there for them, so I’ve been kicking around a few ideas. So we’ll just have to see how that goes but if you like those types of films, family films, if you have kids and you watch a lot of them, I would definitely encourage you to start keeping a little notepad of all your family-friendly ideas and possibly writing one of those. Because, as I said, I’ve heard this recently from my friend Nathan but I hear this quite often that family films, there is a good market and it’s fairly underserved, especially that sort of low-budget Christian niche. There’s a lot of people out there that want to watch those movies but there’s not a lot of people in Hollywood producing them and certainly not a lot of screenwriters writing them.
So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I talk with screenwriting coach Lee Jessup. She’s option material as a screenwriting, and has spent many years working in script development as well. Here is the interview.
Welcome, Lee, to the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast. Thank you for coming on and talking with me today.
Lee: Thanks for having me on.
Ashley: So just to start, maybe you could just give our listeners a quick overview of your career, some of your career achievements and kind of just how you got to where you are now.
Lee: Sure thing. I was actually born into the industry, my dad is a film producer. So I literally grew up on film sets, that’s how I learned filmmaking. I’d go to set, somebody would get assigned to me, and as a kid I would just learn the ins and outs of making a movie. This was back in Israel when bringing the producer’s kid onto set wasn’t quite as pretentious, so everyone was quite welcoming about it and that’s how I learned filmmaking. I started working in film, I got my first job I was 16 after one night at dinner my dad told me he’ll never give me a real job because I haven’t earned it. So I decided to go out and earn it. I worked physical production for a number of years, went on to write a screenplay. I was young, I was in my early 20’s, and thought, “What’s a young filmmaker to do if not tell stories?” So I went and told stories and was very, very lucky to get the screenplay option by a pretty big production company and bring on — then it was William Morris to package a material — which was the most illuminating experience because I found out that being a screenwriter is just not what I wanted to do. To me, development hell was just that, it was hell. And so I went to the other side of development because I really enjoyed working with writers a lot more than being the writer myself.
From there, worked development for a number of years, then went for a desk job, what I call my attempt at normalcy. Just felt that development — my heart was always with the writers, with the screenplays — every time I had to make a call and tell a writer, tell a director that we’re letting the project go because the slate is to full or just something didn’t work out with financing or an actor dropped out, it was a little to devastating for me. So I took the job running sales and marketing for an Internet company that caters to the entertainment industry. And within a year got a knock on my door saying, “Hey, we heard that you worked some development and we have this brand, ScriptShark. Do you want to come and run it?” So it was right back to scripts and at that point I kind of relinquished control and understood that the universe had bigger plans for me than I had for myself as far as working with scripts and writers. Ran ScriptShark for five and a half years, almost six, and then through that got to know a lot of writers who just came to me and said, “Hey, can you give me some advice, can you give me some help, can you support me, can you give me some input on this particular situation?” And that ultimately led to me doing what I’m doing today which is working with writers full-time on the career side of things.
Ashley: I see, perfect. So can we take a step back? You mentioned the option you had when you were I guess in your early 20’s? I always like to just — I feel like I learned a lot just by hearing specific examples. How did you get that script option? What was sort of the premise of the script and how did you get it to people that could make it and get it read and optioned?
Lee: It was an indie comedy, really quirky kind of piece of work that was an homage to Fellini. Really, it was about a man who was given a pair of Fellini’s shoes when he was in his early 20’s and since then believed that his mission in life was to become Marcello Mastroianni and proceeded to screw everybody’s life accordingly if only so that he can fulfill his mission. And the story really took place when he returns to the small town that he left as a bit of a hero, the guy who met Fellini who’s going to go be a director. Small town when he returns to, and the daughter that he abandoned he returns to, to really face who he is and who isn’t and the damage that he caused over the years.
The option process for me happened really organically and we need to remember that this was in the 90’s, early 90’s, and I was deep in the industry at that point. So I literally wrote a screenplay, set it to three producers that I knew, one hated it, one was like, “I don’t get, I don’t understand it, I don’t know why you did this.” The other two, however, really liked it and one went as far as to say, “Okay, we want to auction this. This is exactly what we’re looking for, it’s the direction we want to go in. It’s made me happier than any script I’ve read in a while,” which to me was great [00:10:14]. And within a month I had the paperwork, I had all the legal paper and the option was right there and I was actually pretty perplexed by it because I remember thinking that I kind of dodged a bullet. Had I not gotten those responses from those three producers I literally would not have known what to do. I probably would have put the screenplay away, just not knowing what to do because they’re the three that I knew and luckily they responded. Luckily, the one stepped up to the plate which facilitated me finding out that I really don’t want to do this. But had that not happened I likely would have been chasing a dream for another ten or 15 years not knowing that that was just not what I wanted to do.
Ashley: Um-Hum. So these were producers, you said you were doing physical production so you would have been working with them as a production assistant.
Lee: [Inaudible 00:11:07] with a very prominent production company that did a lot of comedies and were one of the lucky few have private funding. We don’t have a lot of companies today that are not studio related with private funding. There are a few of them certainly, End Game is one that comes to mind, but there isn’t as much private funding in the film space as there used to be.
Ashley: Yeah. I think that your experience with development hell, again, I think there’s a lot of writers that are coming into the industry and I’ve had my own where I write this script that I think is brilliant and it just goes down this long slippery slope of everybody taking their piece of it. So maybe you can give us sort of some insight into your experience with development hell and why was so hard.
Lee: Well, for me I had a very specific vision for that particular screenplay and a lot of conviction and I was young. And I think the younger you are the more you feel your words are set in stone. But I had a development executive that I didn’t particularly like who was brought into the project and I knew the only reason this particular executive was in play was because their brother was becoming a pretty big time director and the production company — there was a lot of politicking involved. So this movie was set in small-town America and suddenly my development executive is going, “What about Mexico? Do you think we can do it Mexico, I really want to go on vacation in Mexico?” And you hear comments like that and you just want to hit your head with a hammer.
Now it also takes us back to the 90’s where there are a lot more jobs, a lot more opportunities. The industry has changed a lot in these 20 years. Today the people who are in those development positions have really earned them because there are so few positions that you don’t earn your keep very, very quickly you’re gone. But that’s an extreme example but you do get notes sometimes that are infuriating to you. I didn’t have the maturity yet to understand that when you get a note it’s not about the note, it’s about what the note is trying to address and really being able to see through that. In the duration of rewrites we brought on a director and we had done some rewrites, I saw the project kind of go aggressively away from what I had seen, what was the original vision behind it. And that was a really tough process for me. That was not something that I was comfortable with and so I had to understand and admit that for me it was about the movie in my head. It wasn’t about the collaborative process for my particular movie.
Now I didn’t want it wreck, so clearly that wasn’t an avenue I wanted to go down. [Inaudible 00:10:58] was just a bad time, 23, there was a maturity question that came into play. I felt much more comfortable than moving over to the development side which I did with the same company. The development exec that I had worked with had gone on to do other things. I had done some script offering for them, had given them some script notes at some point. They knew my relationships in the industry. They said to me, “Do you want to, and run development for us for a little bit?,” which I did which was great. But I felt much more comfortable helping the writer bring their script to its best level than being the writer to do it. I felt that I honestly I didn’t respond as well to notes as I would have liked to. And again, you’re in your early 20’s and I do think there’s a lot to blame on that. Even though the producers were happy with me, the director was happy with me, I kept great relationships, I truly didn’t enjoy it. So as much as I put it on myself because I’m one of those people, I like to take a lot of responsibility. At the end of it all I just really didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t get off on it, I didn’t feel that I became a better writer through it, I didn’t feel I became a happier person through it. So while I delivered what everybody asked were, it just didn’t do it for me.
Ashley: So let’s talk about you. So your next phase was running this development office. Maybe give us some tips for screenwriters who are pitching to these smaller production companies. What are some of the things that people you’ve seen people do really well and what are some things you’ve seen people do really poorly when they go in pitch, whether it be over the phone or query letter or whatever means they can?
Lee: For me pitching is all about being very deliberate in what you say and what you do. Being self effacing rarely works, don’t do it. Somebody wrote me a query letter once that said, “I’m sorry to bother you with this letter, I’m not very good with words.” I understand he meant to be self-effacing but it didn’t translate the way he wanted it to. So I like writers to walk in to pitches, to walk into meetings prepared. So always do your research, know who it is your meeting with, understand their slate, never wing anything in this industry, nobody has ever gotten anywhere winging it. So know your pitch, know who you’re patient to. Don’t be too verbose in your pitch. If you’re not being asked to deliver a 20 minute pitch, don’t. Yeah, most people are just looking to hear what you’re thinking about, what your developing. And so I find that a lot of writers tend to walk in and overload their pitch with plot points, ones that the listening executive just can’t keep up with. We’re not going to remember all of that stuff, we’re looking to hear very, very specific things like who’s the story about, who can we cast in that role, who’s the audience for this, what genre does it fall into, what kind of budget is it going to be delivered for, are there any problem areas that we should be aware of? Like, is this a wartime drama, are there kids involved, is this the story of a pet? So we’re listening for all of this, of course we’re listening for plot and story but as far as plot and story are concerned I find that it’s better to stay on the thinner side and if an executive will want to know more they’ll ask you. So certainly you don’t want to walk in and deliver just the log line because that’s nowhere near enough. But stick to ten, 15 plot points, don’t give me the whole narrative retelling of your movie because I’m not going to remember that. I’m not going to remember marginal characters, I’m not going to remember your C story, that’s not what it’s about in an initial pitch. When somebody is more interested in something that we haven’t written yet and wants to get a 20 minute pitch or a 45 minute pitch, that’s when you really go into the belabored point-by-point, moment
-by-moment retelling. But with a short pitch, with an elevator pitch, it really is about making sure that they understand what you’re talking about. So being very, very selective with your words, really practicing and honing so that you don’t get them distracted with the wrong thing. And being practiced.
Ashley: You’re talking about an actual in person pitch. Where do you get writers? Was there ever someone that sent you a query letter and then you’d say, “Well come in and pitch,” or how did you get the writers to come in?
Lee: Mostly it was agents that would send me scripts, that would send me writers that I would respond to, once in a while there was something in a query. But mostly it was through agents. We are talking about some time ago so that was usually the way in. There were a lot of agents, there were a lot of writers that haven’t worked yet. Once in a while I’d meet somebody and they’d tell me they have something interesting, they’d email me about it, I’d tell them, “Look, let’s meet and talk about it.” But back then we were a little bit less fortified, there was easier access. Not to say that there aren’t avenues today, it’s just avenues are different.
Ashley: So are there any things in terms of query letters? Did you see any really good query letters that stand out, maybe you could give us a tip on query letter writing?
Lee: If your personality can find a way into your query, that’s fantastic. I had a client of mine now actually write a query letter that she had used that was literally written as a 1980’s love letter. It worked perfectly because her writing is in that world, is in that tone, and literally every person she sent it to fell in love with it. It put her personality right there on the page. It was funny, it was sweet, it was cute, without too much work, with just a slightly different approach instead of, “Hi, I’m so-and-so and I’m approaching you about such and such,” saying, “Hi, I’m yada, yada and I absolutely fell in love with your movie blah, blah, blah and I think I saw yada, yada winking at me from across the cafeteria. I can’t wait to tell you about what I’ve got.” It was just one of those that was seamless and attractive and unique and made the writer stand out. Now if you can’t do it, don’t try too hard because when a writer tries too hard to be funny it never is. If you can’t drill your personality into it, let it go and just be really concise, always put your most important selling points front and center. I find that a lot of writers bury the lead, if you will, mention their nickel winner, their cage win, or the fact that they were stacked on a TV show or that they made a fellowship in the third paragraph where this is really what belongs in the very first line because it is about why is this executive, agent, or manager going to be interested in talking to you.
First of all it’s about you, the writer. A screenplay can only go so far, a writer is going to continue to produce content or at least that’s what we hope for. So we are looking to see why we should be in bed with you, why we should be talking to you. And so to me the first sentence should always be, “Hi, I’m such and such. I just won PAGE and I’m also working through the NBC fellowship at this particular moment in time. I’d love to tell you about my script.” But that is really the lead, that’s the most important information about you, the writer. After that, it becomes okay, they like the log line, they like the pitch, they don’t like the pitch. Are they still interested in you? And it’s in your interest to build a relationship with whoever is on the other end. So even if they don’t like what you’re proposing in terms of the project, they can come back to you and say, “That’s not for us, what else you have? That’s not for us, please send us the next thing.” It is about building those relationships. A person builds their relationship, a script doesn’t.
Ashley: Yeah, sound advice. So one of the things I read I think on your About page you were talking about writers looking for agents and you said something along the lines of managers and agents don’t sign a script, they sign a brand. And I find I get a lot of these people too. They don’t realize they’ve written one script and some of them have no desire to write other scripts. They just have this one idea that they think is brilliant and they want to get an agent for them and I try and tell them, “Listen, agents want writers not scripts.” Maybe you could just give a little background on that because I get this question quite often too.
Lee: Well, the reality is if you have one script and you have no intention to write another one, unless it’s a million dollar screenplay and there really are not very many of those. Unless it’s a script that can go out and sell to a studio tomorrow for a million bucks, no questions asked, an agent is not going to sign you for one simple reason: you’re not looking to become a working screenwriter, you’re looking to make a movie, there is a difference there. We are over the one and done deal. The one and done deal was the 1990’s when a writer would emerge from nowhere with a spec script, show up, the spec would sell within weeks, and the writer would be gone and nobody would care. Because back then it was much easier to sell a spec from a brand-new writer. We’re in a completely different model today. Because now it takes twice the time to sell a script for half the money, agents and managers are getting in bed with people that can continuously generate new revenue for them. They’re not going to bank on the one sale and have the writer be gone because, from a new writer they’re not going to expect that much money, and therefore they’re going to invest in themselves for the long run. So agents are not going to sell you on the one script. Like the agents are not going to get involved and tell you’ve already sold a script or gotten a great deal of interest.
So some people like to say that agents don’t get involved until you don’t actually need them anymore which is not that far from the truth, they certainly continue to advocate for you. To write the deal for you, to follow up on the contract and make sure that everything goes for as needed. But today’s industry, today’s climate, is really about building careers rather than selling a script. If you look at the spec market, we sold 124 specs last year. That’s not a very large number if you consider that most of those specs were sold by writers who were selling second, third, fourth, fifth specs. This is what the market is relying on and agents and managers are preferring to work and work hard for writers that will continue to generate revenue for them rather than have the one sale. The one sale is just not going to equate to enough.
Ashley: So let’s talk about your career coaching services for a moment. Sort of what’s your ideal client, who are you looking for, and what can these writers expect to kind of get out of your coaching service?
Lee: I look for writers who are willing to put in the work. I’m really, really lucky and I think as a coach you’re only as good as your writers, you’re only as good as the potential they bring to the table. It’s my job to help guide them, to provide insight, information, support, cheerleading, all of that good stuff. But I look for writers who are willing to put in the hard work. And I’ve been lucky. I work with writers who just graduated UCLA or I have a client who’s just now starting writing programs but wants to understand her brand and really build it consciously, all the way through to writers who have been nominated for the big awards, for Golden Globes, for Academy Awards, for yada, yada. So I do have a nice variety of writers. I always tell my clients that physical coaching is great, coaching sessions are great, having conversations are great, but work actually happens between sessions. So I always look to see what’s the client’s goal and how do we get there, what do we need to do. There’s a lot of frank discussion, there’s a lot of honesty about where the body of work is, what’s working for the writer, what’s not working for the writer, what’s the writer doing right, with the writer doing wrong, and then setting goals in order to move the client closer and closer to their career.
What I care about at the end of the day is forward motion. Whether or not the goal is to win an Academy award or to quit the day job or whatever it is, forward motion is what interests me. I recently had a discussion with a client, whom I really enjoyed meeting with but he just didn’t do the work. So sure, we can grab coffee every month and talk about what he should be doing but he wasn’t doing the work. So at that point I shouldn’t be taking the money because there is no progress for him to work with showing up to meetings. And a career is not going to sprout miraculously without the hard work going in, without the conscious deliberation about the body of work without really making the scripts as strong as they can be, without getting screenplays bedded, without getting as much comment as we can, without pursuing the different avenues that writers have to market themselves to create pedigrees for themselves. So that’s where the work really has to go in, I’m here to support, to provide input, to provide guidance, to help figure out what’s next, and to do so some of the thinking on that side. I am, by nature, a strategist, that’s what I get off on, so I’m happy to apply to writers in what they should be doing next. But a lot of work does fall on the writer.
Ashley: So there’s the career strategy aspect, does it get down to actually giving notes, the person’s writing a script and you still use your development skills to actually give them notes on specific writing that they’re working on?
Lee: I will give verbal notes. So I don’t do written notes, frankly, because I feel there are just way too many out there who do coverage, this is what they do, they do it well, they do it in a more affordable rate. And there are readers that I work with that I love that I refer for my clients out to. I do provide verbal notes. So we will sit and discuss a piece of material and some general ideas and broad strokes ideas, and for many of my pros this works just fine. When it’s getting into the minutiae of things it is about going and getting a set of notes and then sitting down and discussing them with me. I will do a kind of in-depth discussion on outlines. I see outlines from all my writers all the way through to vetting ideas. So when a writer comes to that moment when the screenplay is finished and what’s next, we’ll sit down, we’ll go through a creative development session where I will ask the writer to bring in five, six, ten ideas to make sure that the writer is working on the best idea that they have for their brand and for the market. So we’ll really kind of hone in on that and make sure that from their we go through outlines, then we go to draft. On occasion I’ll read pages as the writer writes but that’s really a courtesy, but I always ask for a second set of eyes on the material because that’s how the industry works. You have to convert a lot of fans in order to see your work really rise to the top.
Ashley: So I mentioned this to you before we started the interview, I think a lot of the people listening to SellingYourScreenPlay.com — my whole thing is really how to sell scripts — so most of the people who come to me have already written one, two, three, maybe five scripts. They may have an agent or a manager that may have even optioned some stuff and it sounds like you coach people sort of in this group as well. What are some of the big problems you see with writers in this stage of their career? They’re not necessarily making a full-time living from writing but they’re definitely past those sort of beginning very basic stages. And what are the problems you see with them and what are some of the solutions that you offer to them?
Lee: Well it can vary. With writers who have had a script that was very successful for them, so is with a writer who had a script on The Black List or who won a contest or who got an agent or manager [inaudible 00:29:24] script or who made a sale, next script is going to be a nightmare. There’s this expectation the first draft is going to be in the equality of the final draft. There is a lot of managing your agent and your manager that I do with my clients. I would say about 40% or maybe even 50%, of my clients are wrapped but that doesn’t mean those relationships are as optimized as they can be. Sometimes it’s the fault of the writer, sometimes it’s the fault of representation. I do find that a lot of writers kind of jumped on a manager without really vetting the manager, finding out whether or not it’s a fit, just to have a manager, which doesn’t work in the long run. So it’s figuring out where their relationship is succeeding or failing, what we need to do in order to get more out of management. Certainly, I have writers who have sold specs and have since lost the interest of their representation because they weren’t able to replicate the effort. So how do you get the industry interested again? How do you reinvent yourself? There is that conflict of constantly having to reinvent one’s self and making sure that your velocity as a writer, you are generating enough and not getting stuck on the one script that you think will get you there. There’s a myriad of problems that come up for every working writer out there, whether or not they were able to quit the day job or not yet.
Ashley: So what are some of the solutions for the writer that has sold a spec or something? It sounds like it’s just doing the work, writing more scripts?
Lee: Doing the work, really understanding what is in their best interest to write, not trying to replicate the exact same script, lowering their expectations for themselves a little bit. I find that writers tend to be perfectionists, more often than not and that can be a real stumbling block. Allowing themselves to walk away. To walk away from the computer, to walk away from a piece of writing for a little bit, really rejigger their expectations. There’s a lot of fear of communication with representation. Fnding when is the right time to communicate, what are the questions to ask? How to consistently work their relationship so it is constantly reaching out to the existing fan base and is seeing where there are opportunities that might not have been mind. What is the best way to move forward? But constantly moving forward rather than waiting for something to happen. A lot of writers hit that point where they think, “Okay, I’ve sold a script, now it’s going to happen.” It doesn’t work this way in the industry at this point. You have to consistently work. So this is not going to let up. Understanding where pressure is positive and where it’s not is a big thing. So understanding where you’re setting expectations too high with the next script. Also making sure that the script is either in brand, so something that’s expected of you, or, if it’s out of brand, something that you’ve earned the right for. So if you’ve sold a comedy script and the next thing you want to write is an action thriller, your fan base is not going to know what to do with it,. You have to have a large enough fan base to understand when you can truly write that script and get away with it. So yeah, there’s a million solutions, a million things to think about.
Ashley: It sounds like identifying the problem is really the first step to coming up with a solution.
Lee: Yeah. Yeah.
Ashley: So that’s another interesting point you make as far as branding goes. What do you recommend to those writers if they’ve sold something as a comedy and then they really have a passion for writing action? How do you retool and start to write in a different genre than what people are used to seeing you in?
Lee: Well. I find that the more success you’ve had in one genre, the easier you can migrate to the next. So you’ve done something right once, the industry will want to see you do it right a second time. Once you’ve convinced them that you can do it right a second time or a third time then you can more easily shift. Now, have there been easier shifts in when one sold a comedy and then sold a horror script? Yeah, but that doesn’t happen as often. Specifically, agents and managers who are the advocates of the writer in the space want to know what it is they are selling. If they don’t understand it, they’re not going to sell it. So I do find that the more success you’ve had in a genre, the more easily you can course correct or you can shift. There’s a writing team, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, they’ve been writing comedy. Their first comedy produced in 2003, it was New York Minute with the Olsen twins. They since then went to write Accepted and Tower Heist and sold a bunch of comedy scripts. But fast-forward to where we are today, they have a family drama with Ron Howard at HBO and an historical drama with Ridley Scott. So they’ve shifted but they’ve developed enough fan base and enough trust that at this point nobody wants to piss them off. And this is my conjecture, I certainly haven’t had to those conversations with them. Nobody wants to piss them off and say, “Oh, I’m not sending your family drama out to Imagine. Are you crazy?” They’ve had enough success that they can go any which way that they want to at this point.
Ashley: So taking a step back on someone’s career, someone who has not had that much success for a newer writer, as I said, someone who’s written maybe two or three scripts, would you recommend that they really concentrate on one genre? And again I’m talking about someone sort of before they’ve had any major sales. Maybe they’ve had an option, maybe they’ve had a agent, but do you recommend for those writers, do a try and diversify the kind of figure out what’s going to be their successful lead into the industry or really just hit one genre hard and try to have four or five good specs in one genre?
Lee: Well it’s a tricky thing because until you hit, you don’t truly have a brand, right? It’s the script that you hit with. There’s a saying that if you’re good at everything you can’t be great at any one thing, and I do believe that. So I think that wherever you’re strongest as a writer, that’s where you should develop and develop very strategically. I like to see a writer with two or three pieces in one area that they’re very strong in. That said, I have a writer who just wrote a comedy feature. He’s super excited about it but he hasn’t been — it’s been ten years since he sold his pitch to Paramount and now he’s getting some traction on a one-hour thriller pilot. So all his representation wants to see for him is thrillers. The comedy that he wrote is falling by the wayside at this particular moment in time because all representation wants from him is thriller. Thriller, horror, anything in that world, that’s what they want to see from him.
Your brand is truly made when you start getting some attention. So for example, if you win PAGE with a thriller, showing up to all the judges and everybody who’s excited about your script with a comedy is just not going to be effective. So I do believe in finding what you are strongest in and everybody is usually strongest in one genre and what you’re most excited about, where your ideas are most exciting. And a lot of that is sitting down and writing just a slew of ideas and seeing where the strongest ones are.
I had a writer who wrote a sci-fi script and was determined that this was where she was going to thrive. I didn’t think the script worked that well, we went back, I said, “Okay, bring me some ideas.” We sat down and went through ideas. Her thriller ideas were fantastic, they were out of this world. And she just finished a thriller, sent it to a very highly regarded analyst in the industry that I’ve worked with for a long time, he gave her a recommend. I’ve work with this guy for seven years, I’ve never seen a recommend come from him. Literally never, this is the first time. And this is a guy who ran the story department for Cruise/Wagner, he’s reading her CBS, he’s in the industry. Does that make or break the script? No, but it is a verification that this writer is writing where she should be writing. And she’s continuing to generate these really exciting ideas. So it’s about recognizing where you are as a writer, where you are strongest in developing that to the best of your ability because once you have representation, you do give representation better tools to sell you with. If they don’t get it, they’re just not going to do the work.
Ashley: Sure. So maybe we could just end on sort of a general question, just with your years of experience in the industry. I know I have like a list of frequently asked questions. Are there some frequently asked questions that you get asked? And some of those questions and then some of the answers to those questions.
Lee: Oh gosh. “Does it have to be less than 120 pages?,” that’s usually the first one. Everybody wants me to say, “Of course, 130 is fine.” No, no, no, no, no. I always tell everybody that the magic number for me, and I see that from all my pro writers, for some reason not one of them goes over 107 pages. 107 is the cutoffs. So encourage to that. In terms of I do get a lot of representation questions. Everybody thinks they’re ready for representation now. But the question for me is always, “What do you bring to the table?” And most writers are not ready for representation now, so it is about getting ready. “How long does it take?,” that’s one that I get a lot. We always say three to ten years, people tell me that I’m generous with the three, some people say five to ten years. That’s what it takes. I had one writer show up last May and had his first movie go into production in December, he’s was a fluke. I love him but this is just not how it happens. But yeah, those are kind of the main ones. What questions do you usually get?
Ashley: Well that’s a good one and I always try and use the baseball analogy. It’s like you see this guy at Yankee Stadium pitching and it’s like he didn’t just go out and throw a few pages one summer and make it onto the Yankees.
Ashley: The level that — and I don’t think that people quite understand this because anybody can open up a typewriter and start typing pages and anything that that’s all it takes. Being a studio screenwriter is the top of the top.
Lee: Oh yeah!
Ashley: These people are very, very bright, they’ve been working very, very hard for many, many years. So it’s — yes, there are sort of those flukes that all of a sudden someone makes it —
Ashley: — it comes out of nowhere, and so people think that’s the norm and it’s certainly not. Yeah, yeah.
Lee: Yeah. This is a craft that the more you do it, the more you practice it, the better you are at it, so you have to keep writing. Somebody said to me once that if you’re not writing, you’re written, and I totally hear that. Writers need to always be writing. Never rest on the project that you wrote three years ago. Always look to your next project, to the next bit of content that you have to produce, to your next original idea. Those are the things that are kind of pivotal.
Ashley: Yeah, when I tell people that five to ten, I quote sort of the same thing, that five to ten years. People have said, “Oh, you’re so negative,” and they have this laundry list of people that made it much quicker than that. So yeah, there’s a good saying, ‘Luck is not a business model,’ and it’s like there’s always going to be people that are basically lottery winners —
Ashley: –and you can’t reproduce that. If you really want to have a career, and you can’t count on getting just a huge dose of luck, you’re looking at five to ten years.
Lee: Absolutely, easily. And the thing is there’s always the question, “But do people really make it?” Yes, people really do make it. I see people make it all the time, my clients, my friends, I see it. It’s not an impenetrable business If you know what you’re doing and you’re doing it deliberately and consistently. But the name of the game is tenacity here. You have to keep at it, you have to keep producing and sticking at it and it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. So prepare yourself for that.
Ashley: So great, this is been really very insightful, I really do appreciate it. If people want to contact you, how’s the best way they can get in touch with you?
Lee: My best resource for contact, or the best way to reach, me is my website which is LeeJessup.com. L-E-E-J-E-S-S-U-P.com
Ashley: Okay, perfect.
Lee: There’s a contact form on there that you can always reach me through. It goes straight to my email and I usually get back to people rather quickly just because I’m anal about it.
Lee: If something is not answered, I don’t sleep well.
Ashley: Perfect, and I can link to that in the show notes so if anybody’s listening to this they can just check out the show notes and I’ll put a link straight to your website there.
Lee: Please do.
Ashley: Well thank you, you’ve been very generous with your time. I really do appreciate it, it’s been very insightful.
Lee: Thank you so much for having me.
Ashley: Just a quick plug, I’m going to be running an online class called, ‘How to Make the Opening Pages of Your Screenplay Awesome.’ The opening pages are by far the most important pages of a screenplay and so often writers squander them. I’ll be discussing the opening pages of five great screenplays and pulling out some great lessons from them. The screenplays I’ll be using are Natural Born Killers, Lethal Weapon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Legally Blonde, and The Shawshank Redemption. The screenplays are all available in the SYS script library, so if you haven’t already read thedr scripts, definitely check them out. They’re all good pretty much from top to bottom, so they’re worth a read. Also as a bonus, and for anyone who signs up for this class, I will personally read the opening few pages of your screenplay and give you a verbal critique during the class and we’ll see how your pages stacked up against the produced screenplays that we’ll be looking at. So if you’d like to hear what I have to say about some of your pages, this is a great way to do that. Check out SellingYourScreenPlay.com/Classes to learn more about the class and to sign up. If you’re listening to this after the class has taken place, no problem. I record all the classes and you can view them at your leisure by joining SYS Select. To learn more about that, go to www.SellingYourScreenPlaySelect.com.
In the next episode of the SYS Podcast I’m going to be interviewing Doug Richardson. He’s written such blockbusters as Die Hard 2 and Bad Boys. He’s got a lot of great stories and insight into screenwriting, so keep an eye out for that.
In this episode of Writing Words I want to talk a bit about my own development hell story. I feel like a lot of newer screenwriters or a bit naïve when it comes to how the entire process works. Lee touched on her own experience with development hell in what she described as fairly typical, so if you’re serious about being a screenwriter make sure you’re ready to deal with this.
The recent screenplay that I wrote, the dark romantic comedy I mentioned earlier in the podcast, has a very long and, I think, very funny title. I got an email from someone saying that the title alone would prevent me from ever selling it, and what was funny was the very next email that I got was from someone who said they loved the title and thought I should be able to sell the screenplay based on the title alone. So there’s really no accounting for taste and there’s often is not a right answer. So many years ago I got into my own development hell situation with a film Lars screenplay that I had written. The producers brought on a director who started to rewrite the project. This is fairly common. When a director or even a major actor comes into a project, they will bring their own ideas and you almost always have to make some changes to accommodate them, especially directors. Some directors can insist on some pretty major changes. So I had a subplot that where the protagonist was an artist and he painted pictures in his spare time. The director hated this subplot and thought it was superfluous to the story. I disagreed but what do I know? So I removed the whole subplot. Well, I’m not sure what happened but things didn’t work out with that director and the producers eventually found another director. So we restarted the whole rewriting process all over again. Well, this new director thought to be protagonist was underdeveloped so I suggested that maybe he was an artist and painted pictures in his spare time. The new director actually loved this idea so I dusted off the old draft and sent it to him as the rewrite.
In the immortal words of William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything.” I guess the moral of the story is make sure you save and document your various drafts well in case you need to go back and get them.
Anyways, that’s our episode, thanks for listening.